26th February 2012 – North Kent Marshes & Isle of Sheppey
I picked up my clients, an Australian couple who were new to UK birding, from their home in East London, soon after 7am and after negotiating London’s various road closures we arrived at Northward Hill RSPB reserve in Kent an hour and a half later.
The feeders by the car park provided excellent views of a number of common species including Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, House Sparrow, Great Tit, Blue Tit, European Robin and Dunnock, whilst the nearby trees and farm buildings held Common Woodpigeon and Collared Dove, all in excellent light conditions. We then had a walk through the scrub where we saw Song Thrush, Fieldfare and numerous Common Blackbird on the ground, whilst overhead there were large flocks of Rook with the occasional Jackdaw and a flyover Redwing (surprisingly the only one we saw during the day) and a Eurasian Sparrowhawk. From the viewing point on the hill, scanning the flooded pools provided us with a range of wildfowl; Mallard, Gadwall, Common Teal, Northern Shoveler, Tufted Duck and a single drake Northern Pintail. There were also a number of Common Gull, plenty of Black-headed Gull and few Northern Lapwing. The fields held large numbers of corvids (mainly Rook) but we did get a couple of Carrion Crow and a Grey Heron in flight. We then walked up to the top of the hill, where we added to our range of woodland birds with a very obliging Great Spotted Woodpecker, Long-tailed Tit and several more European Robin, Dunnock and Blue and Great Tits and flushed a cock Common Pheasant. We also kept hearing Green Woodpecker calling, but apart from a very quick flash of green disappearing into the woodland, we didn’t manage to see this species. On the way back to the car we had lovely views of European Goldfinch as well as seeing Pied Wagtail and we heard a Tawny Owl calling from the orchard and a Common Crossbill flew over calling, though was not seen.
Next we headed off to the Oare Marshes, near Faversham. This place never disappoints due to the proximity of the birds to the road and the paths. Again the pools were dominated by wildfowl, with a good number of Northern Pintail here, though we did add Eurasian Wigeon, Common Pochard, Greylag Goose and Common Shelduck to the list. Waders were present in smaller numbers than I‘ve seen them previously (probably due to the tide still being out) but we had excellent views of Black-tailed Godwit, Northern Lapwing, Common Snipe and Ruff right by the road, and from the hide a single Pied Avocet and a small flock of European Golden Plover. We also had very good views of Little Egret and Grey Heron. Whilst we were walking around, one of my clients spotted a mid-sized “hawk” flying low over the pools, which turned out to be a “ringtail” (female/immature) Hen Harrier, which was a really good species for the day. Our walk around the East Flood continued with Reed Bunting added and a superb male Beaded Tit which perched on a reed for nearly a minute before flying off back into the reedbed. The estuary and creek was alive with waders, dominated by Common Redshank and Dunlin, though we did find a couple of Grey (Black-bellied) Plover, several Pied Oystercatcher, a large flock of Pied Avocet and a small group of Bar-tailed Godwit. There were a couple of hundred Dark-bellied Brent Geese on the mudflats (though a little distant) and we also saw a couple of Common Seal. Whilst walking back to the car, we had tantalisingly brief views of a Rock Pipit as well as Greater Black-backed Gull and several Ruddy Turnstone and we heard, but didn’t see any of the several Cetti’s Warblers that were singing during our traverse around the Flood.
We decided to have lunch at the Harty Ferry Inn on the Isle of Sheppey. This is really frustrating as it can be clearly seen ½ a mile way across the Swale (the channel between the Isle of Sheppey and the mainland) from the Oare Marshes, but as there is no longer a ferry of any description it involves a 25 mile round trip. However, we made the pub before they stopped serving and replete we carried on to Leysdown-on-Sea on the Thames Estuary side of the island, stopping on the way to admire a pair of Red-legged Partridge that were standing just by the side of the road. At Leysdown we found several Ruddy Turnstone and a single Sanderling along the tideline (the tide was high by now), but the Sunday fisherman and day-trippers had pushed the waders off the area where we were. A chat to a local birder, found us looking at some Great Crested Grebe on the sea, but we failed to see much else on the water, except for gulls – the sea was like a mill-pond and as a result anything of interest was so far out that it would have been mere specks in the telescope. However, we did get distant, but reasonable views of a Short-eared Owl quartering one of the inland fields.
We elected to finish the day at the RSPBs Raptor Viewpoint near to where we had had lunch. There were several other birders here and soon were had brilliant views of Short-eared Owl, with up to three in the air at a time, including watching them have territorial tussles and perching on the posts. There were also a number of Western Marsh Harrier here and we saw a male feeding on a European Rabbit that it had just caught and later another male on an unidentifiable avian prey item, as well as several females flying around hunting. We also added a very obliging Common Kestrel to the list, which kept perching on some nearby mounds and another “ringtail” Hen Harrier flew across. There were plenty of Common Pheasant and Red-legged Partridge in the fields while small birds were represented by Reed Bunting and some distant Corn Bunting. A single “grey” goose, probably European White-fronted Goose, flew over accompanied by a white “feral” type” goose but eluded attempts to clinch its identify.
Surprisingly, there were no Barn Owls seen – apparently numbers have suffered in the last couple of cold winters, and the resident bird that is present here doesn’t tend to come out until just about dusk, having been pushed off its normal hunting grounds by the mainly wintering, Short-eared Owls.
However, as the sun set and it got colder, we called it a day, having racked-up a total of 81 species during our excursion.
The favourite birds of the trip were voted as Great Spotted Woodpecker, Bearded Tit and Short-eared Owl, and as my clients were new to UK birding, virtually every bird they saw was new to them.